50 Best colleges for African Americans: the right college environment can make or break an experience. Here's how to make sure students choose the school that's best for them.

Author:Donaldson, Sonya A.
Position:Special Report

TIMES MAY HAVE CHANGED, BUT ONE THING HAS REMAINED constant: Each year, thousands of African American teens and parents will sit down to make the big decision about which college to attend. Typically, families base their choices on several factors: overall cost, financial aid package, location, and the school's academic reputation. For some students, the decision is clear-cut. Yet, families often overlook another essential factor--whether a school is the right fit for the student.

So how do you know which college is best? What qualities should you look for? This article will answer those questions. We've provided help from experts and notable alums of some of the schools that made this year's list of BLACK ENTERPRISE'S Top 50 Colleges for African Americans. We polled graduates of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), as well as those who attended predominantly white institutions to get their take on what makes a school the right one. These alumni, who hail from a wide variety of schools and careers (such as publishing, entertainment, education, and technology), also provide practical advice for students. The idea behind this story is that with the benefit of hindsight and foresight, students will have a broad range of issues to consider beyond cost.

As in the past, this year's list of Top 50 Colleges for African Americans offers a wealth of choices, and we provide tools and information to help families weigh their options. (Be sure to log on to www.blackenterprise .com for additional information, and visit our virtual college campus for tips on saving for college, scholarship information, and more.) This year, the list is more essential than ever. According to Minorities in Higher Education 2001-02: Nineteenth Annual Status Report by the American Council on Education, enrollment of students of color at the nation's colleges and universities rose 48% between 1990 and 1999, with African Americans making up nearly 11% of all college students. Despite this, black students still lag behind their white counterparts in degree attainment. The issue, then, is not simply a matter of being accepted and going to college but also about making sure the school meets the particular needs of a student.


For high school students, the prospect of leaving the nest to fend for themselves is, well, scary. New cities, new people, and new experiences can be overwhelming. Before deciding on a school, it's a good idea to make sure a student knows which kind of environment is best for him or her. While the allure of a large university may be strong because of its name, it might not be the best for a student who flourishes in a small environment. Likewise, a small, suburban college might not be the best fit for a student who is more comfortable in the city. "Different colleges are like different communities," says Carol T. Christ, president of Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. "It's important for the student to know himself and for parents to know their kid and understand the kind of environment in which he will thrive."

In addition to matching the environment to the student, Christ says it's a good idea for African American students concerned about diversity to look at the ethnic composition of the student body. "Look for extracurricular activities that focus on the students and that provide a way [for students] to meet other African American [peers]," she adds.

Filmmaker Spike Lee (Morehouse, '79) adds that overall diversity is especially important on predominantly white campuses. "Look at the diversity of the faculty, students, and administration. Look at the alumni. Who are the people that the school produces? This is a diverse world, and it's a better learning environment when you have people from every walk of life. It's just a better learning experience."

Bruce Spiva (Yale University, '88) agrees, noting that the diversity shouldn't be just racial. A partner at the law firm Jenner & Block, Spiva says, "Look for a place where there is not just racial diversity but also socioeconomic diversity. That's important because who you interact with can be an educational experience in itself."

But, Pamela K. Johnson (Stanford University, '82), co-editor of Tender-headed (Pocket Books; $25.95), says that often, socioeconomic diversity can be intimidating. "Stanford was a beautiful campus, and there are lots of opportunities. But at the same time, I was aware not only of race but also of class in a way that I was not before. There were a lot of students whose fathers were ambassadors, neurosurgeons, and Texas oil men--people who were running the country, and for a gift coming from a lower middle class neighborhood [Carson, California], it was off-putting at times." However, Johnson, 42, adds, there are great benefits to attending a top-name university such as Stanford. "It was highly challenging; it's a great place to sharpen your edge intellectually, and there is a strong sense of competition. But I was in a funk at times there. As much as I thought Stanford presented me with a lot of opportunity, I felt that the pie had already been carved up." Still, she adds, "Stanford seems to be a nice name to wave around."

While some alumni opted for mainstream institutions, others, like Keshia Knight Pulliam (Spelman College, '01) and Creative Artists Agency Foundation Program Director Michelynn "Miki" Woodard (Hampton University, '93) tout the wealth of their experiences at HBCUs. "I came out a much stronger person, and educationally, I got a solid foundation," says The Cosby Show alum. "If you ask me, you can't help but being pro-black and pro-feminist after going to Spelman." Pulliam, 23, says she took advantage of the "whole college experience," including pledging.

Besides Hampton University's strong academic reputation, Woodard, 31, says it was important for her to be immersed in African American culture after living in environments as varied as London and Puerto Rico. "I had not had the opportunity to have more than one or two [African Americans] in my classes; I wanted to find out what it was like to be with people who looked like me. Plus, Hampton fit my personality," she adds.

For Woodard, the pull was even stronger because her parents are Hampton University alumni. No pressure there. Adds her mother, Suzanne Woodard (Hampton University, '70), a homemaker, "We encouraged the kids to go to Hampton." Her husband, Thurmond Woodard (Hampton University, '70), Dell Computer Corp.'s vice president of global diversity in Austin, Texas, says laughing, "We told Miki, `You can choose whatever school you want, but the check is going to Hampton.'" For Suzanne, 52, it was also important to make that connection with other African Americans in a supportive environment. Thurmond, 53, continues, "There's a value in going to an HBCU. You're going to experience culture that you've not experienced before and you're going to learn history that you did not learn previously."

Like Woodard, William Moss III (Hampton University, '95) has a long history of family attending and graduating from HBCUs. But Moss, 29, says the deciding factor in choosing Hampton was that it provided the best program for his major, computer science. "It's more important than before that students know what they want to pursue. If you have that focus in the beginning, you can figure out where you're going to land."

Mark Whittaker (Harvard College, '79), editor of Newsweek magazine, says he understands the appeal of HBCUs for African American students. "That's the environment in which they will flourish," he says. But he adds...

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